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The Unnatural UnUltra Ultra Runner

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I had grand visions, huge visions, amazing visions of being a seriously athletic, tall, lean strong runner that could leap into burning buildings and be the hero. You see the entire reason I started running was to be able to start the process of joining the Firies. Yep I was going to be a Fireman (or woman, whatever the politically correct term is for a chick Firefighter). I was a swimmer through and through with the body type to match (thing massive, strong, broad shoulders and huge flippers for feet), making running a very unnatural movement. This coupled with the imprinting from a very young age of continually being informed that I was “not a runner”, “couldn’t run” and “wasn’t able to do it properly” left a nasty negative taste in my mouth and mind. I was a turtle – better in the water than I ever am/was on land.

Slowly the sessions sucked less, it didn’t feel like my lungs and heart wanted to explode out of my chest and beyond during and after every single session. Couch to 5km was my friend – or at least that is how it seemed. It became, and still is, a solace, an escape from the world, time to be able to ignore everything else, to quiet that monkey mind a little bit to focus on the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other. This turtle slowly became a little better about being on land.

Then it changed – I couldn’t get fast enough to make the beep test requirement and my body revolted with chronic ITB issues – it felt like my knee was going to implode every single session and beyond.

Downtime was needed, and other factors of life came into play, so other paths were followed resulting in the firefighting hero dreams being morphed and changing into other things – which is 100% ok now at the time it wasn’t but now it is.

Eventually, I could start running and training again. Better yet I could do it pain-free, no niggles, no knee issues, just gliding, smooth, gazelle-like movements. So I entered my very first event – cause that’s what you do as a “real” runner isn’t it? You take part in a mass event and get a medal? The very first event I did was the Mother’s Day Classic 8km in Melbourne and that was HUGE for me. I remember it being FREEZING that day and it basically rained non-stop. It was so wet that by the time I finished it felt like I had peed my pants. I still remember seeing the photos, and the emotions that I had. I looked like a runner! I looked strong, lean, athletic and gazelle-like. This swimmer had become a runner! The questions still remained – Was I a runner? How far could I actually run?

The next event I signed up for was the 21km at Melbourne Marathon later that year. Two weeks into training I destroyed my ankle during a training session. It was so bad it didn’t even hurt. We found out later that it didn’t hurt because I had so completely severed everything holding my ankle together that there was nothing left to hurt. I was lucky. I got to see amazing Sports Physicians and surgeons and I had a full ankle reconstruction straight away. This meant six full weeks of no weight-bearing. Then another 6 months – yep a full 6 months, of learning to walk and move the ankle properly again before I could even think about running – this KILLED me inside. All those doubts and thoughts creep back in and your head gets dark, so very dark. Those gazelle’esk images disappear and are replaced with baby giraffe, crossed with a hippo images and those of darker things.

Eventually, you start being able to run, slowly, one awkward foot in front of the other again and again. Slowly, cautiously, the burning in the lungs starts to disappear again and you find that clarity, that clearness that elusive runners high pokes it’s head around the corner once and you are hooked yet again. Determined to make it to the full 21km distance I tick that of (multiple times, in fact, I think to date I have completed over 20 of this distance in events and it is still my favourite distance). Still, that question remains – Can I go further? Am I a “runner” yet?

Wanting to chase bigger goals but so very unsure of how to do this I sought help – enter Super Coach Chris.

Like the little engine that could, we plotted, planned and believed I could. We worked on crazy things like low heart rate training (yes, it’s horrible, yes, it drives you crazy and yes, you will go so very slow, but it is WORTH it in the long run (yes, pun intended)).

Every little session, every painstaking step was a little closer to feeling like a runner, to being able to go the distance. I started to venture out in the trail world – and this is where I completely and utterly fell head over heels in love! There is nothing like it, being out there, and sometimes being so very much on your own that you wonder if you will ever see another human being. Tackling some of the toughest and most insane terrain, sometimes winning the battle with your head, sometimes with your heart and sometimes loosing completely. No matter what though it was ok.

Somewhere during these adventures, my internal image changed. I am strong, I am capable. I am not the thin, athletic gazelle that I originally dreamed of – I am very much that uncoordinated baby giraffe crossed hippo but oh boy do I love it? YES. Am I a runner? YES, I am a TRAIL RUNNER.

The overall goal for the last couple of years has been and is to see how far I can actually go – no timeline, no pressure, but a long term goal that can be broken down into these tiny little steps along the way. I still remember the plan I received with the word marathon written on it. My heart stopped and wanted to escape out of my toes I was that terrified of it. By the time it came, I was excited. I just wanted to run and face that distance. Was it easy? No. Was it a massive high? YES. I still get a buzz when I think about it.

 This turtle then managed to pluck up the courage to undertake an ultra. There it was written in front of me 50km. 50 long, crazy, ROAD (ugggghhhh) kilometres. This turtle had to find a bit of turbo which was the scariest bit with a 7 hour cutoff for the event. The distance didn’t scare me – in fact, the distance never actually scarred me. The cutoff terrified me though. That 7-hour limit actually kept me up at night. I came to the resolution (with a lot of help from those around me and Super Coach) that I could do it, I just had to keep ahead of the packvan (trust me you haven’t run like a back of the pack runner until you have been chased by the packman van (packvan) like some strange arse video game villain). That 7 hours was doable – and you know what it was! I did it and I wasn’t alone along the way or on the crazy journey even with all the solo hours and sessions of training. It took a village of awesome to get there and I am immensely glad that I go there. But the adventure wasn’t over yet.

Safe to say that after that this little turtle wanted back on the trails and that’s what I did. These little giraffe/hippo legs and body got back out on the trail and trained out butts off. Why? The hefty goal of the first 55km’s at GOW was set with Wifey graciously accepting the second 45km’s. We trained, we worked hard, we swore a lot. Some sessions just plain sucked, some didn’t go to plan. Some involved lots of fairy bread, sitting on rocks bawling and wanting to quit so bad that it hurt. I still maintain that it isn’t a trail run if at some point you don’t want to lie on the side in the foetal position and give up.

Safe to say that the build-up for both of us didn’t go perfectly, but that is life, and running, and this turtle has learnt to be more adaptable, a skill I am immensely grateful for.

Event day (notice that I don’t use the word race? I don’t enter these things to win, I am generally last across the line so for me, they will always be events, not races) was not exactly textbook either. Mother nature was throwing everything she had at this event, so the decision was made to keep all of us safe changes and modifications needed to be made. Instead of the course being a full 100kms it was going to be about 80kmish (cause trail running is all about the ish). Meaning that my 55km’s had now turned into 40ish km’s.

Mentally I had prepped for 55kms so this was ok and aside from it technically no longer being an ultra for me (hence it was now an un-ultra) I was excited to still be able to run. We ran, we slipped, we stuck, we glopped, and we ran. The weather was interesting, and the mud was so immense even my inner turtle felt at home. Trust me by the time I made it to the end of those 40ish km’s my body and mind had felt like it had completed the full 55kms!

My newfound skills of being adaptable saved my butt. Enabled me to take the day as it was and actually enjoy every squishy bouncy un-elite moment.

Am I ever going to look like a “runner” as far as society is concerned? Probably not. Do I care? Less and freakin less. Do I feel like a runner? Hell yeah! Can my body do what I need and what I ask it to do? Very much! Am I getting stronger? YES! Is this turtle finding its turbo? Slowly (pun intended).

As my running improves, as I get smoother, stronger and more aerobic and the worse my race and event photos get and the less impressed I am with how I look in them, the more I feel like a runner. I see myself as a runner now. I am so very proud of everything I have achieved and terrified (but excited too) by what adventures may be ahead. This includes seeing how far I can run. I am proud of finding my inner ability to change, adapt, and modify on the go (thank you trails! Because let’s face it life isn’t perfect and things don’t always go to plan). I am honoured to be a part of this amazing community and have the people in my life that I do now, that would have never been a part of it if this turtle out of water hadn’t made the most of the adventure. My promise to myself is to continue to be the turtle, find a bit of turbo, and make the most of the adventure. To treasure those people that are in my life now and the running adventures that I get to (yes, that I GET TO) go on and see myself as a runner regardless of the turtle/giraffe/hippo form I take. To see exactly how far this little turtle can go.

What is your promise to you?

Sa x

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